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The Detective (The Galactic Football League Novellas), Page 2

Scott Sigler

  Frederico Esteban Giuseppe Gonzaga has a murderous stranglehold on the flight stick as he tries to wrestle the bird under some kind of control. His right hand is engulfed in flame, but he doesn’t feel the burn, doesn’t register the skin bubbling and blackening and peeling – he doesn’t feel it because that part isn’t real.

  One eye watches the burning hand that holds the flight stick, while the other spies the manic dance of his instrument gauges. The stick is locked in mechanical rigor mortis. He pulls until the sinew in his arms feels like snapped bass cords, but their altitude continues to drop as the dying ship creeps closer to terminal velocity.

  The crew chief is screaming at him from the rear of the copter. Spittle flies from a dark depression in the older man’s graying beard, but Frederico can’t hear him. He can’t hear anything except the warning Klaxons, the hot snap of flames crackling all around and the sound of pure, flesh-stripping G-force thundering around his bird.

  Frederico can’t hear the words, but he doesn’t need to hear. The crew chief is a man as hard as the steel plates beneath their feet. He can strip a copter down to its rivets and then put it back together again blindfolded and without the hand-rolled cigarette falling from his lips. Nothing that happens on a copter can faze him. The way he’s screaming can only mean one thing.

  They’re going down, and there’s nothing that anyone, including and especially Rico, can do about it. All he can do is try and pick the spot where.

  He aims for the trees.

  You should let it go, the Loa tells him, as it always does. Let this whole scene slip from your mind’s eye before the crash. You need not see the rest, not again.

  The Loa hovers somewhere in the upper plates of the Archangel’s cockpit, present but removed from this moment in time. It’s just an observer, an absurd one at that — a tiny, snake-like man-thing with a long skull face and a dusty stove-pipe top hat. It doesn’t belong here, and Rico knows it.

  A split-second later the Archangel’s whirling blades slice through the jungle canopy. The copter’s formerly sleek and currently burning body follows. It slams against what feels like a mile of branches and bark, each jolt enough to crush bone against any one of interior’s hundred steely edges. By the time it hits the ground, the shuddering impact of the trees has slowed its velocity by more than two-thirds — enough to stop him from being smashed to paste, but not enough to stop the machine from hitting the ground so hard it looks like a grotesque tin can that’s been kicked around by a schoolyard full of bullies.

  The crash stuns him, tries to make his restraints cut him in pieces. He coughs, not sure where he is. When the flames lick the outside of his left leg, he remembers. Unlike the hand he watched sizzle and bubble, this fire is real – he feels the heat.

  Reality comes back in one ugly bastard of a wave. He’s alive. His leg is badly damaged, pinned under a fallen ammo crate. He’s hurt, but he’s alive — if he can get out of here and escape the fire, he just might stay that way.

  It’s a good feeling, no? the Loa asks. It’s sitting on his shoulder now, whispering like some devil in his ear. To survive? To brave the fire and metal and realize you’re still here?

  Rico ignores him. He looks around the Archangel’s imploded interior. The rest of the crew, the strike team they were carrying — all dead. Even the chief; Rico feels a pang of loss when he sees the old man’s body. That pang makes no sense. He barely knew the chief. He knew that the chief was two months from retiring, he knew that... maybe that’s what made his death just a little bit more tragic than the others.

  Outside the hull, somewhere beyond the fire that wants to cook his leg medium-well, Rico hears a voice. He hears shuffling. It’s not coming from the Archangel. It’s in the jungle outside.

  They’re coming for him. They shot down his bird, and now they’re coming to finish him off.

  You sure ‘bout that now? the Loa asks. You’re hurt and scared and angry. You sure you know who is out there?

  But Rico knows. It’s the enemy. And now they’re clambering over the smoking remains of his bird and about to push through the hatch a few feet away.

  Rico dislodges his leg, leaving skin and bone fragments and a pint of blood under the seat. His pants leg is on fire. He slaps at it, putting out the flames even as his hands hit hard against blistering flesh. It takes more strength than most men will ever know not to scream. He pulls his damaged leg along with the rest of his body toward the hatch. The enemy soldier on the other side is trying to jimmy it open now.

  Rico reaches for the nearest carbine but sees the barrel is bent. The thing is useless. He unsheathes his knife. The steel and the fabric of the scabbard create a whisper in the dark.

  The hatch is opening. Rico is poised to strike.

  Are you sure? the Loa asks again, as if it matters, as if Rico can stop time and reorder the universe to change the next few seconds.

  The hatch drops, and the shadow-draped form of his enemy begins to slither through it.

  Rico knifes him the way he was trained, hacking and slashing, ignoring the blood and the flailing and the screams until the thing in front of him stops moving.

  It does. It probably did while he was still stabbing it, over and over and over again. It doesn’t matter. Rico’s arms go still. There’s dark red juice on his hands, up and down the sleeves of his flight jacket. He’s breathing like a sprinter, and if anyone could see his eyes, they’d be as crazed as any wild thing that stalks the jungle.

  Get ready, son, the Loa warns him. Here it comes. Again.

  The fire rises, and Rico sees his enemy’s face. It’s not a soldier. It’s a scavenger. It’s a woman of ninety pounds with threads of gray hair glinting in the firelight. Just some villager who saw the crash and came to pillage the wreck.

  Or worse... High One help him, so much worse... maybe she came to help the survivors.

  She’s dead. She looks surprised. So surprised.

  I told you to let it go, the Loa taunts him.

  But Rico can’t do that. He holds on, gripping her ragged clothes in his scorched fists and sobbing hysterically.

  Stay here, then. The fire is rising. It’ll hit the reserve tanks in just a second. You won’t feel a thing. And when it’s over, you’ll never have to come here again.

  Rico can’t do that, either. Because that’s not how it happened.

  So for the thousandth time, he tears his fists from the woman’s limp body, taking wads of bloody cloth with them. He crawls from the wreckage and slithers into the darkness beyond the firelight.

  When the Archangel explodes it bathes the jungle in orange and red. It looks like an oil painting of exquisite beauty.

  Then he hears the enemy. The real enemy.

  They’re coming, the Loa says almost mischievously.

  The knife is still clenched in Rico’s fist. He’ll stay low to the ground. He’ll slash Achilles tendons and pick them off one by one. They don’t understand the monster that’s just been made there in the flames.

  But they will. Moments before they all die, they will.

  Chapter 4: Caleb Dies

  There was no shrieking in the darkness. There was no bolting upright in his bed, drenched in sweat. There was no twisting anguish on his face or running-from-the-devil racing of his heart.

  Caleb simply woke up. His eyelids opened in one smooth, sudden motion. He was awake and alert, and he remembered everything about the dream, the incident that gave birth to dream and where he was now.

  The Loa was gone, as he knew it would be, always knows it will be. But somehow, when the dream comes, Caleb never fails to check the dark corners and shadowy rafters of whatever room in which he finds himself. He imagined the Loa being. No one is more aware than him that it’s not real. But it lives in the places Caleb visits more than any other. Caleb spends more time with the Loa than with anyone else, and that makes it hard to sequester it from reality.

  It’s about control. He created the Loa to help control the dreams, to keep himself lucid
during each replay, each memory reconvened. He learned about the Loa from a squad mate, Red Bizzick. Red hid his voodoo upbringing the way Caleb hid his own desires. They sensed that extra layer in each other, sensed that there was a secret that must be hidden, and because of the desperate Human need to share — magnified by a long night of drinking — they had told each other their true nature. Those truths could have gotten them killed. If anyone in the unit ever found out, word could have spread. Some were sympathetic, some didn’t care, but too many in the service would have persecuted them until someone stacked wood for a fire.

  In effect, the need to be true to at least someone meant they had entrusted their lives to one another. The act of confession had bonded Caleb and Red, a bond deeper than that of family, than that of lovers, than that of comrades. Secrets drown you. Telling someone, taking the chance that they won’t tell anyone else, well, that is like sliding your head above the surface to take a breath, to stay alive.

  Voodoo. Red would have burned for that, no question. Caleb had kept the secret. And for that trust, when the dreams threatened to drive Caleb to madness, Red had taught him how to conjure the Loa. It was all superstitious nonsense, but Caleb had been so desperate for a way out that he’d tried it. He still didn’t believe in the supernatural, but there had to be some science to dream control because the Loa worked. The Loa became Caleb’s dream-guide. The ugly little man tied Caleb to the present, reminded him the dreams were nothing more than memory, memory molded by guilt and shame until it formed a nightmare.

  Caleb stared at the ceiling. He’d sacked out in a two-room shack that was connected to dozens upon dozens of others like it, powerful magnets making a roof lock to a floor, a floor lock to a roof, the shacks stacked together like a child’s set of wooden blocks. Each identical shack had a narrow walkway at the base, a ladder leading up the face. Caleb had to climb four ladders to reach his walkway, which is so wobbly it felt like it might collapse at any moment. This is how Rhingold Incorporated — and every other mining outfit — provided housing to its workers. The walls were sheet metal, and the roof couldn’t protect its tenants from a thimble of rain, let alone an actual downpour. Still, the company etches its logo — twin green crescents — on every shack, perhaps just to give the workers a nightly reminder of who puts that roof over their heads.

  Caleb climbed out of his shabby cot. In the other room, which was little more than a closet, there was a makeshift grooming station. Each shack had pipes that were supposed to connect to a central pump, but enough of the pipes were broken that Rhingold just gave up and had two liters of water delivered to each shed each day. How the miners used that water was up to them. At least the plumbing worked in the communal showers — those facilities were three ladders down, four walkways to the right.

  He poured half a liter of water into the sink-basin, then splashed his face several times.

  Above the basin, someone before him had nailed a broken piece of mirror to the wall. Caleb stared at his dripping face, at his torso. He still had the scars. Dozens of them, a topographic map of his “adventures” and the wounds that came with them. An entire world of pain that was his and his alone.

  For a moment, he put away Caleb Cole and let the man who earned all of those scars come flooding back to his mind and body.

  “My name is Frederico Esteban Giuseppe Gonzaga,” he said to his reflection. “I’m a private investigator. I live in Ionath City on planet Ionath in the Quyth Concordia.”

  He repeated it. Then he repeated it again. By the third time he said it, the name and occupation started to feel real again, instead of just another shade, another mask, another subterfuge Fred used in his work.

  A knock that threatened to rattle the shack’s tin-sheet door off its single hinge drew his gaze from the broken mirror. Fred instantly blinked away his true self, and Caleb Cole rushed in to fill the void.

  He moved out of the wash closet and opened the door.

  Carney stood there.

  They just stared at each other for a moment, then Carney spoke.

  “You’re not coming back to the mine tomorrow, are you?”

  Caleb wasn’t. His work here was almost done, but he hadn’t said a word to anyone, not even Carney.

  “How do you figure that?”

  “You didn’t pick up your store tokens for the week,” Carney said. “If you’re not planning to eat at the company store, then you must be bolting.”

  Caleb died with those words. There was no point to keeping him alive. He’d served his purpose, and Carney had seen through him.

  Fred grinned a little, despite himself. “You’re too smart to spend the rest of your life swinging a pick, Carn.”

  “What choice I got?”

  “Always a choice.”

  Carney shrugged. “I suppose. I’m right, then? About you bolting?”

  Fred nodded.

  Carney almost didn’t ask, but Fred knew the question was coming. Take away the possibility of tomorrow, and most men will take their last chance on tonight.

  The kid smiled. “Can I come in for a while?”

  There was no real debate. Fred knew he would turn Carney away, but still, he hesitated; it would have been nice.

  Finally, he said, “Look, man, I know why you’re here. I understand... but it’s not going to happen.”

  “Oh.” Carney didn’t look dejected, just confused. “Was I wrong? I mean—”

  “You’re not wrong. You just got the wrong time.”

  “When’s the right time, then?”

  “If I knew, I’d tell you. But it ain’t now.”

  Carney only nodded, more than a little sadly. They didn’t say good-bye, and Fred didn’t wait ‘til morning to leave the mines. He was gone less than an hour later.

  Chapter 5: Mister Sam

  The barbecue brisket tasted better than anything Fred had eaten in the past month. He knew two things as soon as he took his first bite: the first was that he was coming back to this dive on Micovi to eat again; the second was that he would never ask where the meat came from. Fred had seen the local wildlife, and it wasn’t anything he’d choose to hunt, kill and cook if he wasn’t starving to death. There were cows on Micovi, but a recent bug had killed off about eighty percent of them. Until the local herders figured out how to stop the infection, beef was only for Church elders and the super-rich.

  Fred was just finishing when an older man with a bulging chin and a filthy apron came by his table.

  The man pointed to Fred’s empty plate. Even most of the sauce was gone, swept up with a kind of cornbread until only abstract orange brushstrokes remained on a field of porcelain white.

  “Looks like you hated my cooking,” the man said.

  “Worst sauce I’ve ever had,” Fred agreed solemnly. “You the chef?”

  “And the owner. Call me Mister Sam.”


  They shook hands.

  “Sam, I gotta ask — do I want to know what that meat was?”

  Sam smiled. “You’ve got the accent down cold,” he said. “But you’re not from here. Everyone knows the taste of roundbug.”

  Fred stared. “You’re telling me I just ate roundbug?”

  “Delicious, nutritious roundbug.”

  “Aren’t they poisonous?”

  “Delicious, nutritious, poisonous if you don’t know how to prep the roundbug.”

  Fred nodded. “I see. Well, if I die, I can promise you I won’t recommend this place to my friends.”

  The place was empty, but Mister Sam took a look around anyway. Satisfied, he took a seat across from Fred. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter. “I got a message from Quentin. He said you were working for him. He doesn’t contact me often, but that’s okay. He said to help you. That’s the only reason I’m talking to you now, but I won’t talk for long. What can I do to help?”

  “I’m looking for information on his family.”

  “You’re not the only one,” Mister Sam said.

  Had t
he Warriors been here? Goolie?

  “Someone else talked to you?”

  Mister Sam nodded. “Yep. You ever hear of Yolanda Davenport?”

  Fred leaned back. Yolanda Davenport, reporter for Galaxy Sports Magazine.

  “I have,” he said. “I’ve seen her holocasts.”

  Mister Sam smiled. “She’s even better looking in person. I could stand a roll in the hay with that one, you know?”

  Fred smiled and nodded, an automatic, practice reaction when another Human man made a comment about a woman’s looks. It was just easier to play along than to explain that Fred didn’t want a roll in the hay with any woman. And in the Purist Nation, it was also safer.

  Telling the truth... here they burned men at the stake for that.

  “Tell me about it,” Fred said. “Quite a body on that girl. What did she want to know?”

  Mister Sam shrugged. “Asked a lot of questions like did Quentin ever bet on games, what was his relationship like with his coach, with Gredok, that kind of thing.”

  “Nothing about his family?”

  “No, nothing,” Mister Sam said. “She had a different agenda. I didn’t tell her much, though — Quentin told me to talk to you, not to her. But even so, I’m afraid I can’t help much. When Quentin was little, I tried to find out about his family for him. I mean, when he was young — that boy probably came out of the womb at a hundred pounds. He’s never been what anyone would call little. Anyway, I’m not a professional, but I couldn’t find anything on that name.”

  “Neither could I,” Fred said. “I can’t find anything on Quentin Barnes. I was going to try the central records database.”

  Mister Sam shook his head. “Already tried that, I’m afraid. My friend Maxwell worked there. We searched for Quentin’s name and found nothing.”

  “Did you do a DNA search?”

  “He did,” Mister Sam said. “Cross-referenced the name against Quentin’s DNA, nothing came up.”

  “What about his brother?” Fred asked. “Quincy Barnes?”